Music Review

Cassandra Wilson channels Billie Holiday in tribute show

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

‘Hush now.”

From the song “Don’t Explain,” those are the first two words you hear on Cassandra Wilson’s luminous new tribute to Billie Holiday, “Coming Forth by Day.” That was also her approach when the revered jazz singer arrived at Berklee Performance Center Saturday night for a performance that conjured her new album’s supple textures.

The show exclusively paid homage to Holiday, who would have turned 100 this year. For the first half-hour, Wilson was in a holding pattern, her notes never quite robust but rather ephemeral. On “The Way You Look Tonight” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” she danced around the edges of her fellow musicians, in whom she delighted as they built layers of tension in the music.


Wilson hadn’t appeared to warm up beforehand and came to the songs a bit cold early on. There might have been a reason: She mentioned the previous night’s show in New York had been a good time that went into the wee hours. That explained the sunglasses she wore for the first few songs at Berklee.

She brought a six-piece band of thoughtful players who were faithful to the album, but also given enough room to maneuver and unearth new layers in the songs. From Charlie Burnham’s dexterous violin solos to guitarist Kevin Breit’s subtle shadings, the supporting cast had such distinctive voices that they often came close to eclipsing Wilson’s.

An intuitive vocalist, she prizes expressiveness and phrasing over range and force. That meant she needed space the band didn’t always create around her, and some of her more suggestive moments were lost in the cacophony, as sublime as it was. Still, their chemistry was electric, an obvious lifeline for both the star and the music’s backbone.

By the evening’s closing stretch, Wilson had steadied her focus and voice and settled into something sublime, almost otherworldly. On “Good Morning Heartache,” she addressed the topic as if it were a no-good man standing in her way. “Might as well get used to you hanging around / Good morning, heartache / Sit down,” she sang with droll resignation and a little flick of the wrist.


She sent the crowd home on a high note, wading into the cool, placid waters of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It struck a balance between nostalgia and hope, an ode to the past while welcoming the future. The band held back, at last, slack-jawed and leaning in as it took cues from Wilson’s assured delivery. Like the full house in front of them, they hung on her every hushed word.

James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.